In the darkest corner of the room, a woman lies huddled beneath a thin, grey blanket. Her delicate frame is entirely covered. Only the blanched oval of her face is visible. Her eyes are as fearful as those of a hunted animal. In the merest whisper, she pleads for a glass of water.
Is this a Wilkie Collins heroine or a character from Dickens? Way, way off. This is the feminist icon Shere Hite in the green room of a BBC recording studio. She is waiting to be interviewed by Jenni Murray for Woman's Hour about her latest book, Women and Love. It is 1987 and this is what fame has done to her.
Shere Hite became a celebrity overnight in 1976, with the publication of her legendary reports. The Hite Report: a nationwide study of female sexuality instantly made her name as the woman who out-mastered Masters and Johnson. Her chief finding, based on 3,500 interviews, was that women don't need penetrative sex to have orgasms, and that they were, in fact, having better orgasms on their own than with their husbands. Heretical stuff. Five years later, she published The Hite Report on Male Sexuality, in which she argued, pre-Foucault, that sexuality is culturally constructed and that male sexuality in particular was so narrowly defined that few men were experiencing true sexual fulfilment. Men, she wrote, have a desire not only to penetrate, but "to be penetrated, not only physically, but emotionally". American feminists were delighted; America's men distinctly less so.
Hite really hit the fan in 1987, with the publication of her next book, Women and Love. Her finding that many married women were having or had had affairs caused outrage across respectable middle America. Leading feminists came out in support, but Hite found herself subjected to an extraordinary campaign of vilification in the media. That her book was a serious and significant attempt to document the attitudes and emotions of the first generation of post-feminist women was quickly obscured as the sensationalism that had greeted her previous books turned very nasty.
These events are documented in great detail in Hite's new book, The Hite Report on Shere Hite. She describes how the reaction to Women and Love nearly destroyed her; it was "a sort of public rape in print". She didn't stop writing, but in 1988 she turned her back on America, moved to Europe with her husband, Friedrich Horicke, and in 1996 took German nationality.
Hite's report on herself is a curious, ill-judged affair. The title hints at a sense of humour that is sadly absent between the covers. The book presents itself as a straight autobiography, but it is primarily an exercise in self-justification, a counterattack on her critics. Her resume of her professional achievements lays bare her pain, anger and bafflement at the way the American media have treated her. At times, the book reads uncomfortably like a blatant appeal to posterity; at others, equally uncomfortably, like overheard conversation - banal yet too revealing. The writing is extraordinarily bad throughout. In all her books, Hite has drawn on thousands of interviews, arguing that it is other people's voices that make her work authentic and compelling. Here, by contrast, we have Hite's voice alone, unaccompanied, unadorned. It is not a voice to which one easily warms, ranging as it does from whinging to self-importance to the cringingly childish.
The most interesting parts describe her early years. She had a displaced and often miserable childhood. Christened as Shirley Gregory, she was soon abandoned by her feckless mother and brought up in Missouri by her ultra-religious grandparents. After her grandparents divorced, she was at the mercy of her formidable grandmother, who took out her own frustrations on the helpless girl. When she confessed to a teacher about her grandmother's violence, she was briskly shamed into silence. All of this is described with curious detachment, in the blandest cliches. Curtains blow in the breeze, trees are green, water sparkles. Yet these early experiences reveal much about Shere Hite the woman. Principally, they explain why she has always needed to take herself so seriously. Believing in herself, in the significance of herself, was clearly a survival strategy that turned into a way of life. And yet, the more seriously she asks to be taken as a social scientist, the more open she becomes to the opposite. Her name alone has long been a gift to her detractors.
Hite has always had an air of the 19th-century tragic heroine about her. All that gorgeous auburn hair, the porcelain skin, the to-die-for cheekbones. Dante Gabriel Rossetti would have made her his muse a hundred years ago. Above all, what qualifies her for the role is a complete lack of self-mockery. It is perhaps this, far more than her feminism, that the American media couldn't forgive. It is this that makes it so hard for her to forgive the American media for their brutal attacks on her research methodology. The repeated accusations that her findings and methods were "unscientific" must have been almost unbearable for her.
The irony is that Hite's feminism is a great deal more scientifically rigorous than that of any other American popular feminist. Her findings have stood up well to the test of time. Most of her "discoveries" now seem commonplace, in much the same way that having a television in every room of the house seems ordinary to the children of a generation who can remember how ordinary it was not to have one at all. Hite has undoubtedly done more to ground feminist theories about female and male sexuality than anyone else this century.
Now aged 57, bolstered by the incontrovertible fact of her sales figures (over 20 million copies sold worldwide, all her reports still in print), Hite has resolved to venture once more into the complex territory of female sexuality. One only hopes that the resulting book will be a great deal better written than this one, but no less brave or ground-breaking than the rest.
Rebecca Abrams's Mother of Two: how your second child changes your life all over again (Cassell) will be published in January 2001